A Long Review of Gilliard’s Rethinking Incarceration – Part 1

Dominique DuBois Gilliard’s Rethinking Incarceration is an assessment of incarceration in the U.S. and a reflection on how Christians should respond to it. RethinkingIncarcerationGilliard’s central thesis is that the modern prison system is deeply flawed. Consequently, Christians have an obligation to reform it, and to push society’s attitudes in a more biblical direction. The book is divided into two sections: the first focuses on the phenomenon of ‘mass incarceration’ and the second focuses on the church’s theological and practical response to it. For that reason, I’ll also divide my review into two parts with a final summary at the end.

Part 1 – Reviewing “The Roots and Evolution of Mass Incarceration”

– Gilliard begins with a historical sketch of criminal justice in the U.S. and its connection to slavery and Jim Crow. His treatment shows not only how injustice has occurred historically, but how it can be hidden from or ignored by both the church and society at large. That’s an important reminder when thinking about injustice today. We should never take for granted the idea that the status quo is either ‘normal’ or ‘just’.

– Gilliard’s language is almost uniformly irenic. Even when condemning incredible evils, he resists painting certain individuals or groups as ‘the bad guys.’

– Throughout the book, stories compellingly highlight present-day injustices, some of which I had heard of and others of which I had not. One of the most shocking examples was the case of judge Mark Ciavarella who sentenced thousands of juvenile offenders to jail in return for millions of dollars in kickbacks. These kinds of incidents are not relegated to the distant past; they are happening today. I agree whole-heartedly with Gilliard that we must work not only to punish this kind of corruption, but to create laws and systems which keep it from happening in the first place.

– Gilliard provides a good, critical analysis of two modern ‘tough on crime’ laws. While recognizing the negative effect that the bills have had on minorities, he points out that Reagan’s 1986 bill, which introduced heavy penalties on crack, was cosponsored by 13 members of the Congressional Black Caucus. Similarly, Clinton’s 1994 crime bill was supported by “a group of influential black pastors” and “black elected officials … because of pressure coming from their community” (p. 49-50). Why this support? In part because they were trying to deal with a “crisis of violence and drugs” evidenced by the fact that “60% of Washington arrestees tested positive for crack cocaine.” (p. 50). This analysis shows why it’s important to listen to both sides of a particular issue. Immediately attributing political disagreement to undisguised self-interest or bigotry is dangerous. It could be that our own solutions are simplistic and ignore a part of the problem that we hadn’t noticed.

– While Gilliard buttresses many of his arguments with statistics, they are often missing important context. For example, in his section entitled “Implicit Bias, Racialization, Criminalization, and School Punishment” he mentions the fact that “[in 2009] 77% of the students expelled [in Los Angeles] were Hispanic” (p. 85). What he doesn’t mention is how many students in Los Angeles are Hispanic. As it turns out, the number (at least in 2015) was 74%, which means that Hispanic students were probably expelled at a rate almost exactly proportional to their population.

– In the same way, Gilliard often draws a direct line from disproportionate outcomes to ‘systemic injustice’. However, this conclusion is not necessarily warranted. For instance, men are incarcerated at approximately 10 times the rate of women and unarmed men are roughly 10 times more likely to be killed by police than unarmed women. Yet most people would deny that these statistics demonstrate systemic sexism within policing. My point is not to deny that systemic injustice exists, but to show why careful analysis of disparities is always needed.

– While the book is highly footnoted, that masks a heavy reliance on a handful of scholars. For example, 5 of the 11 references in Chapter 1 and 17 of the 65 references in Chapter 2 are to Michelle Alexander’s acclaimed book “The New Jim Crow.” There were also an unusually high number of references to websites, newspapers, and magazines. While these sources are not automatically suspect, the frequency with which they appeared does suggest that the book’s analysis may be somewhat superficial.

– With the exception of the 1986 and 1994 crime bills, there is generally little engagement with arguments in support of the policies Gilliard opposes. For example, there’s little explanation of why the government is relying more and more heavily on private prisons or why schools are partnering so closely with the police. For the reasons I mentioned above, this kind of analysis is important and I wish there were more of it.

– Finally, Gilliard’s argumentation was sometimes weak or opaque. For example, in Chapter 4, he discusses Japaneses internement during WWII. He then writes: “Private prisons are the offspring of …. Japanese incarceration camps” because “echoing incarceration camps, [they] strategically place facilities in sparsely populated rural communities” (p. 61). Regardless of one’s stance on private prisons, it seems like a huge stretch to connect them to Japanese internment camps based on where they are located.

Considering only the historical and empirical side of Gilliard’s book, given primarily in Part 1, it has much to recommend it. However, the second part of the book is more problematic and I’ll treat it in the next section of my review.

Next: Part 2 – Reviewing “The Church’s Witness and Testimony”